For Romney, Silver Getting Dull

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney greets supporters outside a polling station in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 8, 2008.

Mitt Romney is, as he reminds audiences in every speech, an optimist. At his last public event before the primary election today, he took the stage and surveyed the not-quite-packed crowd and was ebullient: "They tell me 200 people are waiting outside!"

A few reporters jumped from their seats and ran to the parking lot. An overflow crowd of 200 for Mitt, whose events had been drawing merely respectable crowds, would be news. A short jog to the parking lot revealed: satellite trucks and some people carrying Ron Paul signs. Oh. A Romney staffer caught up with us: "They were just here!"

But that's Mitt Romney for you: The gym isn't half-empty, it's half-over-full.

He greeted the results from Tuesday's New Hampshire primary voting with the same attitude: All those votes he was planning on getting? Well, they were just here! As late at 7 p.m. on election night, Jim MacEachern, Romney's Perry Township chair, was predicting a victory. "We've got 'em," he said, referring to the mobbed polling place he spoke from. (Meanwhile, at the McCain headquarters, aides were trying to suppress grins and quietly showing each other exit polls on their BlackBerrys, shading them with their hands so we mere mortals couldn't see.)

So optimistic is the governor about those elusive voters that after his second-straight silver medal — to use Romney's favorite Olympian metaphor — he plans to roll onto his native Michigan with his new-old campaign themes in place. On the surface, at least, the campaign will stick to the messages they turned to after their defeat in Iowa: competence and change, no longer his conservative credentials. "The governor's experience as a solution-oriented guy, a turnaround CEO, is a particularly good fit in Michigan," says his national spokesman, Kevin Madden. "We can win there with a focus on the economy and showing the governor is someone who can lead on job creation and the global economy." Alex Castellanos, a senior strategist for the campaign, painted their seven-point loss — two points better than their finish in Iowa — as the campaign's hit of the reset button. "Something big has changed, the race has refocused itself. I think the race starts here."

As for change, the campaign recently chose to refocus its public statements not on Romney's fellow aspirants, but on Barack Obama. "I think Obama's success has focused the race, whether he wins here tonight, whether he wins the nomination or not, and that's to our advantage," says Castellanos. However, their new pitch hinges on basking in the reflected glow of his shiny message of change — "With Barack Obama, the people of Iowa have shown they want change," is now a standard line in Romney's stump speech — while also painting him as a dangerous radical: "The nation wants us to move forward, but," he says, referring to Obama, "do we want it to be a sharp left? Following in the path of the Europe of old?"

Hillary Clinton's surprising win tonight may cause Romney to switch, again, to framing his candidacy as an anti-Hillary one. He can even keep his "Europe of old" line: Early on, his strategists contemplated bumper stickers reading "Hillary=France." Says Madden: "We're going to continue to draw contrasts with the Democrat front-runner, whether it's Hillary or Obama."

Unaligned strategists say that Romney will undoubtedly continue his stream of "comparison" ads, that his best bet still is to depress McCain votes — a tactic that may work well in Michigan because it's a state where Mike Huckabee will again find a strong base of Evangelical support. The McCain camp, however, vigorously disputes that interpretation. "We're thrilled Huck's on the air in Michigan," one McCain adviser says. "He takes votes away from Romney that we would never get."

Regardless, Romney is the only candidate who can, literally, afford to keep going even if he loses these early contests. His appeal to Republican voters is largely based on his success as a businessman; his staffers frequently call their spending in early states an "investment." Told that Romney advisers were saying that the race really started tonight, McCain supporter Lindsey Graham — in the midst of a victory toast — laughed and questioned whether Romney can really run on that reputation any more: "It must really be bad to spend $10 million dollars on a race" — as Romney did in Iowa — "and not have it count."

Indeed, listening with a straight face as Romney's advisers talk about the value of second-place finishes in the first two states, of being "competitive" rather than winning, demands a bit of amnesia. The Romney campaign's highly focused strategy was always on winning in Iowa and New Hampshire and Michigan and then riding the momentum created by those victories to wins in the bigger states on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5. That was the way Romney was going to overcome his low name recognition nationally against celebrity opponents like McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Now the momentum belongs to McCain and Mike Huckabee, whose Iowa win and more-than-respectable third place finish in New Hampshire make him the candidate to beat in the Jan. 19th South Carolina primary, which has historically been vital in deciding who will win the G.O.P. nomination.

Given the unpredictable nature of this campaign, and the fact that Romney can fund a long campaign from his own bank account, it doesn't seem all that foolish to stay in the race, no matter how bleak his prospects might seem today. In a year when a little known Baptist minister can come from nowhere to win Iowa, a left-for-dead septuagenarian can claw out a comeback win in New Hampshire, and when Hillary Clinton can begin the day fighting back rumors that she's dropping out the race and end it by delivering a victory speech — anything is possible. And Mitt Romney might just find those votes he's looking for.